Sierra Johnson's memorial service rocks Bradenton

rdymond@bradenton.comSeptember 22, 2012 

MANATEE -- Sierra Johnson never made it to the Christian music concert in Orlando she was hoping to attend Sept. 8.

But Friday night, at Woodland Community Church on State Road 70 in East Manatee, her friends and family brought one to her.

For more than two hours, a crowd of 2,000 clapped their hands, sang and sometimes cried as a lineup of young and talented musicians performed for Sierra, creating an upbeat, moving and joyous Christian music concert/Celebration of Life Service for a young woman who friends and family said had an unshakable belief that Jesus Christ was her savior.

Sierra died Sept. 13 at a hospital in Lakeland from head injuries she suffered in a rollover accident Sept. 8 on Interstate 4 in Polk County.

Sierra was part of a four-vehicle caravan from her home church, Journey Assembly of God in Bradenton, heading to "Rock The Universe" at Universal Orlando Resort.

The roughly 75 artists, including more than 60 choir members from Manatee School For the Arts rocked Bradenton instead.

"It was a Christian music concert," Lexie Mougey, 17, Sierra's best friend and classmate said of the service, which featured, along with the live music, a blush of purple spotlights on the inside walls of the church -- purple was Sierra's favorite color -- and home movies of Sierra and friends on two huge TV screens, all delivered seamlessly by Aaron Schultz and his tech team at Woodland.

Woodland lent its facility to handle the large crowd.

"Sierra would have said, 'Jeez ... Dang,' and slapped her thigh," Mougey added when asked how the 17-year-old would have reacted to her celebration.

The Manatee School For the Arts chorus, of which Sierra was a member, walked up on the stage early in the show and seemed to lift the audience into a dimension of peace and love with "Tshosholotza," an African anthem. They also performed the rousing gospel song, "Celebration" by Keith Hampton.

The African song featured Djembe drums and was loved by Sierra, said Charlie Toomer, the chorus director.

"She always danced to it," Toomer said after the service, adding that Sierra had a voice that was, "soulful, colorful and soothing."

The audience heard that voice, but perhaps tantalizing too little of it, on video clips where she, sometimes with curly blonde locks and sometimes with jet black straight hair, sang and played the guitar.

Sierra's brother, Krys Johnson, joined with Garrett Vincent on keyboard, Justin Layman on guitar and Isaac Evans on Cajun percussion for a stunning cover of the Burlap to Cashmere song "Other Country." The audience stood in a rousing standing ovation.

In the same set, Meagan Douglas performed "How He Loves Me," making one man in the audience whisper, "I want to go out with a funeral like this."

The Journey Assembly Youth Worship team, comprised of Katelyn Jerowski and Vincent, received a spirted ovation for their moving cover of School of Worship's "Sit in Thrones."

But things were just warming up.

Among the Thirsty, a Christian music group that honed its chops at Journey Assembly of God, and of which Sierra was a fan, performed its original song, "I Need a Savior," which received torrents of applause.

Somehow, perhaps the way that Woodland's tech wizards artfully gave the audience information through slideshows on the TV screens on each person who took the stage, the music never seemed to upstage the nonmusical portions, where all described a young lady that seemed to touch many, many lives.

Among those who spoke about Sierra were David Sutton of the Sarasota Salvation Army, where Sierra's mom, Suzanne, works as a rehab counselor, The Rev. Don Carter of Journey Assembly, former Journey Assembly youth pastor Doug Dierdorf, Maj. Charles Thomas of Sarasota Military Academy where Sierra attended as a freshman and, finally, her dad, Curt.

Curt Johnson told the crowd he appears OK, but not he's not that OK. He said he had never been through something like this but everything he had done for his 46 years seemed to be a preparation for this moment, allowing him to be someone to lean on for his wife and kids.

But Johnson broke down when he described his final moments with Sierra, whom he called, "my baby girl."

"After she died, I held her," Johnson said. "I put my hand on her tummy. I thought, 'She wanted kids so badly. And we wanted to be grandparents to those kids.

"I never knew something could hurt so bad," Johnson added. "My wife, Suzanne, said, 'You don't know you love something so much until you lose a child.'

The service was being streamed live in the Internet and was being seen in many parts of the world. Prayer for Sierra Johnson, a Facebook page created by the family, has had nearly 11,000 "likes."

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